Category Archives: Classroom Culture

Using sorts to shake up the routine and move toward student-generated talk

So much of what happens in English class is internal. Students read and think, they think and write, and we work to help them make their thinking visible. When we aren’t reading and writing we’re often talking, which can still feel internal (or less hands-on) as we process what others say and ponder how to respond. Sometimes, especially at the end of the year, I feel the weight of this routine and want to shake things up so we can better enter into into those reading, thinking, and writing times.

One small strategy I’ve been relying on this year to add some hands-on moments in my junior English classes is a simple sort. Basically I gave each group a pile of examples (short texts, images, quotes, etc.), asked them to sort the examples on their tables, and asked them to defend their arrangements. The task is quick, collaborative, somewhat tactile, and it gives me a chance to engage each group with some on-the-spot feedback as groups tend to stand around their tables (you can see this in the second picture below) and try different sorting patterns. We often did this as a bell-ringer to review the previous lesson or as an extension activity. It can be as quick as five minutes or drawn out to fifteen if the discussion is rich and I spend time with each group. This year my room was organized in 7 groups of 4 and we tried the following types of sorts:

  • Spectrum sort: Students sorted these sources on a spectrum between “truthiness” and “factfulness” (our research unit focus was conspiracy theories) and then had to defend the placement. This gave me a chance to ask groups and individuals really specific sourcing questions: “Why is the Flat Earth tweet more factful than the Taylor Swift tweet? Why does your group have the article with a quote closer to truthiness than the NASA piece?” You could easily substitute any two traits on a spectrum to reframe the evaluation of examples.
  • Quadrant sort: Students map pictures of the characters (I usually do this with Of Mice and Men or Gatsby) into four quadrants using two traits like empathy and likability. For example, Curley’s wife may not be likable but we empathize with her. Tables can compare the four quadrants easily since it’s visual which extends the discussion. It also leads to great thinking about the two axis traits (for example, what do you notice about who we tend to empathize with? How does the Fitzgerald render Tom unlikable? Is likability or our ability to empathize with a character more important?). Students could easily re-map using two different traits. And really, after the sort and discussion they’re ready to write about these characters.  
  • Pattern sort: For this I usually tell students: “Choose a way to organize the examples you have.” I’ve used quotes, books, and editorial cartoons (I pull 5-6 from the current week). They usually struggle to think of how to do this, figure something out, explain their logic, and then I tell them, “Great. Now do it a different way.” It forces them to think about the relationships between the texts or ideas in different ways as they generate their own spectrums or quadrants. I like to do this after independent reading when people have a variety of books because the discussion becomes rich as they consider character, plot, structure, setting, and symbols without realizing that’s what they’re doing. When sorting quotes, it’s a good segway into thinking about the structure of an essay (considering the quotes like different examples you might organize).

This is a pre-Covid example of a pattern sort my students did with their summer reading novels.

  • Classification sort: This is a more straight-forward formative check. I can quickly tell if students have the right mode for this collection of short visual texts and coach them on-the-spot.

This is not a magical or earth-shattering strategy, but it’s easily adaptable and I like how it enables opportunities for me to shift from teacher-generated discussion to co-creation and student-generated discussion (see Kallack and Zmuda for more on this).

Teacher Generated

I specify the type of sort and the parameters

ex: create a quadrant sort for these Gatsby characters based on their likability and empathy

Teacher and Student Co-Created

I specify the type of sort and they set the parameter

ex: create a quadrant sort for these Gatsby characters by choosing two traits

Student Generated

Students specify the type of sort they will use and articulate their own parameters

ex: take these examples and organize them in some fashion; be ready to defend how and why they’re organized that way

The liveliness of the discussion makes me keep coming back to this simple strategy. Because it’s hands-on and visual students willingly engage and it adds energy to the room.  I’m able to talk more with students (instead of at them) as they work. By catching each group I can directly question or follow-up with nearly every student during a sort. This lets the lesson start with a conflict or problem to solve so it gives us momentum. Then we’re ready to dive into the next reading, thinking, or writing task, a little more awake, a little more ready to take on the world.

Nathan Coates teaches junior English at Mason High School, a large suburban district near Cincinnati, Ohio. He’d love to hear what books you’re excited about reading or adding to your class reading lists next year: coatesn@masonohioschools.com

Returning to the Classroom – A Masked Year in Uncertain Times

When I found out late last summer that I’d be returning to the classroom in person, full time for the 2020/2021 school year, I was equal parts elated and terrified. Having basically not left my house in months, I couldn’t fathom how we’d manage to move back into the classroom with any sense of normalcy or how I’d keep myself, my family, my colleagues, and my students safe simultaneously. Pandemic teaching sounded to me like a mashup of dystopian proportions.

At the same time, teaching from home all last spring brought with it challenges I didn’t relish either (My husband and seven year old daughter were home working alongside me and there were times we were each/all ready to pack a bag and go…who knows where. Mostly elsewhere). I once again considered returning to my roots as a barista or possibly trying to sleep through the coming school year. Healthy, yes?

As news trickled in about navigating our return, it was clear we were building an airplane thirty-two thousand feet off the ground. A noble effort to be sure, but harrowing, dangerous, frightening, and quite possibly deadly. As educators have been time and again, we were being shoved to the front lines. Not as well-equipped or even trained first responders, but instead, as the humble servants who apparently swore oaths to serve and protect no matter the circumstances or cost. I was to be handed a mask and optional face shield, told to keep distance from the thirty students in my room, and do the job I had signed up to do. It did not sit well.

I raged – How could they ________ ?
(Fill in the above blank with four million questions about how it would all possibly work)

I feared for my safety – If I get sick what will happen to ________?
(Fill in the above blank with anyone I love and had been working so hard to protect in the previous months by staying home, masking, not hugging my own mother, etc.)

I cried – But what if _______?
(Fill in the above blank with an equal number of less rational and more emotionally charged wonders)

And while I’m not here to tell you it’s all gone perfectly, or that all of my initial concerns were or even could be addressed before we jumped in, or that the same will be true for you if you’ve yet to return – we have in fact done it. For eight months, I’ve taught in person and virtually at the same time (during the same class hour, in fact). 30 kids in my classroom. Masks all the day through. Suspicious eyes cast on every cough, sneeze, and inadvertently exposed nose.

We’ve shut down just once for two weeks last fall, but otherwise through a revolving door of exclusions for both students and teachers, staff turnover, extended class periods to allow time for cleaning each hour, and nervous moments spent supervising hundreds of unmasked students during lunch…we’ve supported one another through the uncertainty.

In some ways, things are no different than they ever were. My students read at the start of each period, write about what matters to them, and challenge themselves to discuss the weighty issues of our times both intelligently and diplomatically. The room looks much as it always has, but beneath the masks we wear each day, are fears and questions and uncertainties and trauma I could not have imagined last spring when I walked to my room in a haze on March 13th after a brief staff meeting suggesting our spring break would be extended by a week, gathered a few items to teach from home, and looked around at my empty classroom with a growing sense of dread.

Over a year later and as a mirror to live outside of my classroom, it all seems surreal. The longest school year of my life and the quickest. The most stressful, to be sure, but also the most challenging in ways that have caused me to grow in resilience, patience, and compassion.

A few days ago, Melissa asked if we were okay. My answer is yes, and no, and sort of, and I don’t even know. The layers of exhaustion wrought by worry, extra duties, student exclusions, positive Covid cases in my room, and teaching as I never have before (basically tethered to my desk so students at home can hear me while students in the room likely wonder whether my ankles are twisted or I’ve just grown lazy) are just too much. And yet, having kids in my classroom (and even teaching Virtual Film as Literature to 34 black Google Meet boxes), is the light in this dark time. Their curiosities and triumphs push me forward.

So, if you are staring down a return in fall, I cannot be the one to hug you (for obvious reasons) and say everything will be alright. But I can assure you through my example, that you are not alone in your fears, but likewise not alone in the overwhelming sense of joy you’ll feel by seeing your students in person and stretching in a thousand ways to inch back toward a new normal.

What I have learned in this past year (not related to making your own cleaning products, conserving toilet paper, or managing familial relations in close quarters for weeks on end) will forever change my teaching, but also solidify that nothing can shake the core principles that existed well before this pandemic …

  • Students and teachers are resilient, but still human:
    • If there was ever a circumstance to put patience and understanding at the forefront of our work, this pandemic is certainly a contender. It adds an ever present layer of uncertainty that is equal parts traumatic and debilitating. We’ve all experienced loss and change and fear and stress in ways we’ve collectively never experienced before. As ever, students need structure and support as they school in new and sometimes scary ways. Listen more/talk less. Write more/grade less. Read more/test less. Be there for your students, but also for yourself.
  • Reading and writing offer timeless benefits we know well, but choice is more important that ever:
    • I recall last spring, the push to have students write about their experiences in quarantine. And then the push back with the consideration that many students couldn’t/didn’t want to try and process this fresh trauma. It’s been my guide this year in offering students far more opportunities to process through SEL grounded prompts, but there’s always choice. Some students have written all year about the pandemic and what it’s meant to them, done to/for them, taken from them. Some students want to write about anything but. In the weeks and months ahead, our students will be on different timelines with their experiences and per the usual, it will be our job to be equal parts support system and challenger to process the world in which we live. Fall back always on choice – it provides for our students what our limiting circumstances often cannot.
  • Toxic positivity is not the answer, but active engagement in seeking positivity can be:
    • We cannot know how deep the cuts from our recent experiences truly are. We don’t know for ourselves or our students. Personally, the opportunity for deep and meaningful change that seems to have passed us by in hitting the pause button on traditional schooling is a deep cut. The standardized test slog is still in place (don’t get me started on the calls to measure “learning loss” with tests, tests, and more tests…though there are some reasonable voices out there), our hours/schedules/calendars are largely unchanged despite unprecedented additions of responsibilities and stress, and most importantly, to my mind, the opportunity to restructure in a meaningful way to address unconscionable achievement gaps often resulting from inequitable systems and misinformed priorities across education. This year has reminded me that I must continue to use my voice to advocate change in our work, but the moment to moment with kids demands that I give them as much positivity as I can muster. And when my store of smiles is low, I give myself the grace to take a step back, take a deep breath, and take time for myself, because in this circumstance we need to take a little to have anything left to give.

Above all, do what you need to do to balance the unending demands so that you and your family come first every single time. We are only as good for our students as we can be to ourselves, and we can be better each day when we prioritize our health, our loved ones, and our own sanity.

Lisa Dennis spends her school days teaching AP Language, English 9, and Virtual Film as Literature while also leading the fearless English Department at Franklin High School, just outside Milwaukee, Wisconsin where she lives with her husband Nick, daughter Ellie, and beagle Scout.  She now tries to live life based on the last pieces of advice her dad gave her –
Be kind. Read good books. Feed the birds. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum

The Culture Code and Writing Conferences: Part 1

I’m a sponge

“I love taking in so much new information that it just oozes out of me at the slightest provocation.” A friend recently described herself this way and, gross imagery aside, I get it. The feeling of having just read or heard or watched something new and being so INTO the idea that you can’t help but bring everything in every conversation back to that idea. We call this sponging. We’re very original.

She sponges…a lot. I sponge…less.

So when I do sponge, I stop and take notice. Last week I finished Daniel Coyle’s The Culture Code*,  which outlines ways to build effective, productive cultures by examining everything from the San Antonio Spurs to Zappos to a call center in India while sprinkling in a healthy amount of research to support his claims. I soaked it all up, finishing the book in a day – and then began oozing ideas about culture and long-term flourishing all over everyone and everything.

See, the book rests upon the idea that humans are constantly (consciously and unconsciously) asking themselves questions as they interact with others:  

  1. Are we connected? 
  2. Do we share a future? 
  3. Am I safe? 

If we can find ways to answer these questions for members in our groups, we can create robust cultures. Confronted with the powerful notion that our brains are trying to answer these three questions all the time even when we’re unaware, I couldn’t help but think of the implicit ways our writing conferences answer these questions and then began to think of ways to make the implicit explicit. So, over my next few blog posts, I’d like to discuss those three questions and how they relate to writing conferences, looking at strategies and routines we could implement to get more from this common practice.

Unpacking the Questions

Question 1: Are we connected? 

Coyle quotes MIT Professor Alex Pentland: “Modern society is an incredibly recent phenomenon. For hundreds of thousands of years, we needed ways to develop cohesion because we depended so much on each other. We used signals long before we used language, and our brains are incredibly attuned to certain types of behaviors.” In short, our brains are constantly and UNCONSCIOUSLY looking for clues that we are connecting to other individuals. It’s why we pay so much attention to facial expressions, why we maintain eye contact, why we turn our bodies to face the people we’re interested in. We’re looking to see that the energy we’re bringing to any given conversation is being matched, that we’re being treated as unique individuals. These often non-verbal cues speak loudly and help answer the second question humans are constantly (and again unconsciously) asking of each other. Part 2 of this series will look at the physical set up of writing conferences and routines I’ve built to answer the “are we connected” strategy. One such routine is my system of weekly feedbacks. You can read about them here

Question 2: Do we share a future?

The non-verbal cues from question one signal that the relationship will continue into the foreseeable future, letting us know that we are connected to others and, thus, are safe. In our social engagements, we have some choice about the kinds of relationships we engage in and the level to which we feel safe. For example, this question makes me think of a volleyball team I play on. With the end of the season nearing and none of us quite sure we want to continue to play together next season, that “do we share a future” question looms large. This uncertainty leads to awkwardness and doubt amongst the teammates, which, unsurprisingly, translates to the way we play on the court. We need a better culture. However, in the classroom, we can’t choose which kids sit in front of us day in and day out. So we might amend that question to “do we share a mutually respectful and productive future?” This safety question becomes even more important because those interactions are created non-voluntarily. Essentially, in our classrooms, our students might consistently be asking themselves (consciously or unconsciously), about the state of their relationship to us, checking in to see where we stand with each other. Answering that question often can put the brain at rest, prepping it to learn and grow more efficiently. Part 3 of this series will look at how we can answer this question through feedback routines and quick check ins with students AFTER the writing conference is over. 

Question 3: Am I safe? 

Maslow had it right – humans just want to know that they’re safe in any given situation. Granted, we’ve developed past the “is that a tiger in the bush” phase in our evolutionary cycle, so we’re less worried about getting actually eaten and more worried about getting metaphorically eaten. The combination of the physical cues (Q1)  that tell a student they belong and that we share a future together (Q2)  work to assure a student that she is safe in our room- safe to learn, to take risks, to grow.  Coyle writes, “They [the cues] seek to notify our ever-vigilant brains that they can stop worrying about dangers and shift into connection mode, a condition called psychological safety.” Part 4 of this series will look at how the one on one attention provided  by conferences allows students to calm the worrying part of their brain and focus more comfortably on the task at hand. I’ll also talk here about how I use writing conferences to navigate the move to a gradeless classroom inspired by Sarah Zerwin. You can read about fellow contributor Sarah Krajewski’s work in the gradeless classroom here

Where do we go from here?

As we begin to answer these questions for students we can work towards communicating our actual message: I care about you as a person and a student. I want you to learn and grow. From here, we can begin to say to students as Coyle writes: “You are part of this group. This group is special; we have high standards here. I believe you can reach those standards.”

*Affiliate link: If you purchase through this link, 3TT gets a little something.

Sarah Morris teaches AP English Language & Composition, AP Seminar  in Murfreesboro, Tn. She is currently rewatching The Good Place. She can’t help it. There’s something about this line from Chidi in Season 2 that gets her every time: “I argue that we choose to be good because of our bonds with other people and our innate desire to treat them with dignity. Simply put, we are not in this alone.” She tweets at @marahsorris_cms. 

Reading through Liberty

My two-year-old grandson is a master manipulator–or maybe he’s just brilliant.

Over the weekend, his mom and dad took a little anniversary trip, so Papa and I tended Indy and his baby brother. More than once, when we needed/wanted/pleaded with Indy to do a certain thing, he ran to the bookcase in our room, pulled out a book–or four or seven–and sat down to read. “Shh. Quiet,” he’d say, patting the space on the floor next to him in a commanding invitation to sit beside him.

What else is a grandparent to do but stop and read with the little man?

We all know the benefits of reading to young children. (Google gives “about 921,000,000 results” for the question.) We also know that somewhere along the way, many children, maybe especially adolescents, come to not like reading.

Most of us face two challenges:

How do I get students to read when they just don’t want to?

How do I get students to read when they just don’t seem good at it?

I used to think it was all about the books. You know, I’d pack the shelves in my classroom library with the most colorful, interesting, inclusive, newly published, award-winning books; I’d talk about these books A LOT, doing my best to match books with student interests. I’d do All The Things.

And, yeah, many students came to like our dedicated daily reading time. Some of them even came to like the books they read. Many of them claimed to have read more than they ever had before. I’m just not super sure how many students came to really like reading.

Maybe that’s okay.

The other day I saw this tweet by Sarah, a friend and contributor to this blog, and I quickly read the whole of the thread posted by Miah on April 4. It’s a beautifully constructed and compelling argument and well worth your time to read in full. Like Sarah, “I’ll be thinking about it for a long time.”

Today, I’m thinking about it here in relation to my tiny grandson and the reader he may be when he’s 10, 14, 17, or 37.

Miah lists reasons we teach reading: “We teach reading for. . .security. . .self-advocacy. . .freedom. . .economic security. . .social justice. . .evolution. . .social advancement. . .liberty in the highest sense of the word.”

and includes this sage advice–

I think we know what “the noise” is, even beyond how Miah describes it. There’s noise in so many aspects of our teaching lives. And sometimes, nay often, it is hard to ignore. Yet you and I both know we must.

And I think one way to do it is to position liberty: We teach reading for liberty, but we also teach reading through liberty.

If you’re nerdy like me, maybe you look up “liberty” in the dictionary. Merriam-Webster offers a whole list of definitions: “The quality or state of being free” and all the context descriptors–all but speak to the importance of student choice when it comes to reading in a high school English class. Thus, a robust classroom library and all the things.

Then, there’s this definition: “a right or immunity enjoyed by prescription or by grant PRIVILEGE

And there it is–the word privilege making me think again.

In context of my teaching practice, who has the liberty to talk, ask questions, move about the room, take risks, choose texts, shape plans, assess learning? What’s privileged, where, and when?

And, yes, I know–if you’ve read this blog for awhile now, I am most likely preaching to the choir.

But even if we “get it,” even if we try it, even if we’re tired of trying or tired of this pandemic, even if we cannot handle one more decibel of noise–if we believe in empowering students with the skills they need to capitalize on the liberty life affords them–or liberate themselves so they have more–we keep thinking and reflecting, and we keep doing the things that help young people have experiences with reading that make them want to read.

Try This “Conversation Starter” (I read it recently in the Morning Brew, an online newsletter I read pretty much every day.)

If your bookshelf could only have five books, what would they be?

You can learn a lot about an individual–positive, negative, and otherwise–depending on the books they choose, or if they don’t make any choices at all.

Amy Rasmussen is a lover of words, color, and living things–like plants, art frogs, and grandkids. She lives in North Texas and escapes for long periods of time on the country roads near her home. She writes (mostly in her notebook) to see and feel and think in new ways, and when it comes to publishing anything publicly, her phobia of heights doesn’t seem half bad. Amy has a book about authentic literacy practices she’s co-written with Billy Eastman due for publication this fall. She’s both excited and terrified. Follow her @amyrass –maybe she’ll get a little more active on social media.

Walk and Confer: Another Way Back

The eleven year old (11 yo) and I–and sometimes the 8 yo–have been going on a lot of walks. Usually initiated by me, he readily (and sometimes the 8 yo but usually if we scooter) accepts. On these walks, I mostly listen. I’ve learned much about Star Wars, the Percy Jackson series, the Harry Potter series, LEGOS, Minecraft, the history of baseball, birds… and whatever else he’s been reading and viewing and creating. As we walk, shoulder to shoulder (he’s getting taller!), looking at the trees and for birds, we connect. But I’ve also discovered that I can ask questions. Yesterday 11 yo offered his opinion that books are really preferable to movies because the movies always leave out or change key details (yep, full on book nerds in this house). So I asked him why he thought the movie makers would choose to leave out details. He launched into an animated explanation involving the Harry Potter books versus the movies. Our walking and talking, at times it seems, has been connecting and conferring. We’ve been moving together toward shared meaning. 

This kind of meaningful movement may be just what we need when school resumes. When my 8 yo learned about her first class meeting over Google Meet, she was delighted to learn that she too would get to be the little box on the screen. I laughed, but it’s heart-wrenching. We’ve all become little boxes on the screen. And the limited dimensionality of that is an effect of this shared trauma. When school resumes, then, how do we move together toward shared meaning with the now larger than life persons gathered between our four walls?

We move. We listen. We talk. We engage our learners in the walking reading or writing conference. Instead of pulling up the stool alongside the desk or sitting across the table from one another, business-as-usual acts that might now evoke anxiety and fear after months of social distancing, we walk. Walking will allow us to fall into rapport (body mirroring), to find an easiness with our body language that will make it easier to talk and to connect. Feeling scared or anxious can make it difficult to look someone in the eye, and walking removes that pressure. And knowing that learners will not only need to re-learn how to share a physical space with our bodies and with our words, everyone in the room can walk with a partner as we walk and confer with individual students or pairs of students. We can use questions or prompts (on cards to flip through) or post around the building; here and here are a few resources around walking and talking. Our typical conferring prompts remain valuable, too. Moving and conferring is another way back. Not just to each other. But to meaning and creativity and possibility and hope.

In my head, I keep hearing the words of Virginia Wolff: “Better than these walks…”. These walks with my 11 yo and 8 yo may be what I remember most about this time in quarantine. Better than these walks as learners will be when we can be shoulder to shoulder, connecting, moving together toward renewal. 

Kristin Jeschke likes to move (unless her nose is in a book). She serves an active and caring staff as an instructional coach at Waukee High School in Waukee, Iowa. Follow her on Twitter @kajeschke. 

 

Discomfort Leads to Learning

I recently started working with a delightfully sadistic personal trainer named Carol.

Carol has five children, is in her late fifties, and can literally bench press me if I’m not doing squats or pull-ups to her satisfaction. The first time Carol pushed me through a workout, I couldn’t even lift up my two-year-old after our session ended. I groaned in discomfort basically every time I moved for 24 hours afterward and cursed Carol’s name from afar.

Image result for discomfort

But over the past few weeks, the challenging workout has become gradually easier. I can finish the routine without my legs turning to jelly and grimacing in pain every time I try to climb stairs the next day. What was once incredibly difficult is now the just-right amount of challenging, and the success I feel in surviving one of these workouts motivates me to attempt another one.

As I’ve limped around our high school on the days after my training sessions, I’ve noticed a connection between challenge and growth. My students are keen to avoid discomfort of any kind–social, emotional, and academic. They have a multitude of coping mechanisms that help them disengage from challenge, and it’s impacting their learning negatively, to say the least.

It’s only natural to want to avoid challenge. Recently, a colleague gently pointed out the implicit bias in some of the talk teachers engaged in when discussing students. Her attention to deficit-based language made me blush in embarrassment at first, but a day after thinking over her (fair and accurate) critique, I was grateful for her challenge.

Without feeling uncomfortable, I never would’ve realized that there was a lesson to be learned. Fortunately, this colleague framed her noticings as a call-in to action and revision, rather than a call-out of mistakes made that are unfixable.

Image result for culturally responsive teaching and the brain

This attitude toward challenge is what Zaretta Hammond refers to as a “warm demander pedagogy” in her work on culturally responsive teaching. Warm demanders encourage students toward growth by forming a “therapeutic alliance between the person in need of change and the person there to help support the change process” (92).

Being warm demanders and encouraging our students to live in the zone of proximal development is difficult, but I believe inviting our students into a place of challenge and discomfort is the most valuable component of the learning process. As teachers, it’s our job to match our students to the challenges and resources that they need to grow as individuals. Indeed, Hammond urges teachers to position learners “so that they will take the intellectual risk and stretch into the zone of proximal development. That’s the point of rapport” (82).

In our classroom, normalizing and valuing intellectual risk–urging students to dwell in discomfort as we learn–is something my learners and I prioritize. This can look like valuing process over product, rewarding choice and challenge rather than compliance and conformity, or offering frequent opportunities to revise thinking and assignments. Within our professional learning communities, this can also look like inviting others to challenge themselves via call-ins and alliances as co-conspirators.

And so I urge you, first and foremost, to read Hammond’s excellent book, Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain. And then I invite you to challenge your students, your colleagues, and yourselves to spend some time dwelling in discomfort: the place where we can most genuinely measure ourselves.

Image result for quotes about challenges

Shana Karnes lives and teaches in Madison, Wisconsin and enjoys working with her 9th graders and amazing teaching team. She continues to challenge herself as a learner alongside colleagues at the Greater Madison Writing Project. Connect with Shana on Twitter at @litreader.

Teacher Identity Matters

This wasn’t the blog I intended to write but one I felt compelled to write. As a teacher consultant, I work in a variety of schools across the nation and overseas. This particular day I was in a school filled with students new to our country, who have tremendous gaps in their literacy backgrounds, and whose parents struggle to make ends meet. In small groups, teachers were discussing their identity as readers and writers.

“I don’t read except for some informational text,” one teacher said. “I just got burned out in college reading all those books I didn’t want to read.”

And who was this teacher? The interventionist. The professional whose job it is to support striving readers: those readers who don’t know how to choose a book, who don’t have the strategies they need to read with understanding, and who haven’t experienced the pleasure in finding a book they love. I wondered how she could instill the joy and love of reading if she didn’t know it for herself. How could she help students develop their identities as readers if she doesn’t view herself as a reader?

Then I heard a teacher in another group say, “I love to read. I don’t think I’ve ever gone a day without reading. And I know I’ve never gone a day without writing something.”

“What?” someone in her group asked incredulously. “You write every day?” It was clear that the other teachers in her group shared that response. What those colleagues didn’t understand was that this was a teacher who was a member of the literacy club that Frank Smith wrote about years ago, a teacher who could open the door for her students to also join this club.

Overhearing these conversations reminded me of conversations with teachers in other schools and made me think about the importance of a teacher’s identity, particularly in a readers and writers workshop:

  • “I can’t get my kids invested in their writers’ notebooks. They won’t use them unless I stand over them.” When asked about her own writers’ notebook, she shyly admitted she hadn’t kept one since college.
  • It was day one of a two-week writing institute for teachers. I explained, “In the mornings we study writing instruction and in the afternoons, we write ourselves.” At the first break, one teacher left with plans not to return. Her colleague explained, “She hates to write.” And who was the disappearing teacher? A high school English teacher.
  • A principal – formerly a high school English teacher – told me, “High school students hate to write. You have to do something to trick them into it.” When one of her teachers asked for supplies to beef up her writers workshop, the principal turned her request down, convinced that those supplies would be a waste of the school’s limited funds.
  • With surprise, I watched one of the most caring teachers I had worked with teach a grammar lesson. “When do you use semi-colons?” she asked. And when a student answered correctly, she threw him a piece of candy. She posed question after question about conventions, tossing out more candy when students gave her the right answers. When we debriefed, she told me that she hated teaching grammar  and didn’t know any other way to engage her students in thinking about the rules.
  • Down the hall from that teacher, I watched another teacher confer with one of her young writers. Opening her writers notebook, the teacher said, “I hated the way this part sounded, so I thought I’d try using a colon and list some ideas, just like what we saw in Barbara Kingsolver’s story the other day. Why don’t you give this craft move a try and let me know what you think.”
  • “Those young adult novels are lousy literature. I would never assign one to my students.”  When I asked about what she had read recently, she told me that she hadn’t read a young adult novel since college but trusted the judgment of her friend the librarian.
  • I watched another teacher confer with a reluctant reader. “You might try tScreen Shot 2020-01-22 at 5.00.36 PMhis one. I loved it,” she suggested as she handed him Kwame Alexander’s Crossover. A few days later, the student shyly asked the teacher for another book just like that one. And the teacher found one and then another for him. Because this teacher read young adult literature, she could bring herself into the classroom in the same way Julie Swinehart did in her blog about summer reading.

Teacher identity matters. Our identity as readers, writers, literary scholars, even editors carries over into the classroom, shaping our interactions with students, the plans we make, the structures we put into place. A teacher who sees herself as a reader can share her enthusiasm and knows the value of providing choice and time for students to read. I wonder if a teacher can create a dynamic readers workshop if she doesn’t love to read?

And what about writing workshop? Can a teacher design and implement a writers workshop if she never writes herself? Or can he promote the value of a writers notebook if he doesn’t keep one himself? Can we nurture our students identities as readers and writers if we aren’t a part of the literacy club?

I wonder.

 

How do you nurture you identity as a reader? As a writer? What impact does your identity have on your reading or writing workshop?

 

A Return to Flexible Seating

After introducing flexible seating into my junior/senior English classroom last year, I reflected in July about what I liked and didn’t like about the classroom arrangement.  After implementing some changes of my own and many reader suggestions (thank you!), I wanted to reflect over another semester of flexible seating.

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What I changed this fall:

  • Furniture Arrangement:  This year, I made smaller pods of seating. I got rid of the large round tables that ate up a lot of the room and actually moved in more traditional desks (partially due to larger classes).  With the additional space, I was able to fit two smaller tables and a set of chairs for students to work, providing more options for spaces. The room has a nearly-equal balance of seats that require students to use clipboards for writing and desktops or tables.
  • Expectations:  We had a discussion about the purpose and role of flexible seating in the classroom at the end of the second week of school and set guidelines together versus rules.  Students were granted permission to move the furniture to better facilitate group work or sight of the whiteboard, with the stipulation the room comes back to order when the bell rang.  We also discussed the importance of creating a single classroom environment, not one of multiple little pods, and facilitating that through direct eye contact.  I also shared my goal that the classroom feels more like a home than a place of rigid learning, but that homes are to be respected.  
  • Ownership:  While I still reserve the right to ask a student to make a better seating choice, I started the year by asking students to change seating areas each day for the first two weeks.  I believe this established that no one has a “spot,” but we share the space based on need and how we are feeling each day. Additionally, students are required to select a seating new area of the classroom every six weeks or so, which coincides with our school’s midterms and quarters.

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With larger classes this year, the room is more crowded, but feels more, well, flexible.  Removing the large, cumbersome tables also makes re-arranging the desks and chairs for a Socratic Seminar much easier.  I also have enough desks to facilitate an inner circle of desks and an outer circle of chairs. With smaller tables, groups are naturally formed which is a time saver and I can check in with one area at a time for conferences or work checks. Additionally, with less traditional seating available than with last year’s set up, my students and I have utilized the luxury of the cafeteria tables right outside my door.  While one class period a day may not be able to access these additional workspaces because of the lunch schedule, the cafeteria tables have become an extension of our classroom and great for spreading out groups or when we need more table space.

With very few reminders, students have been respectful and able to flow between small group learning and whole-class learning.  I notice students craning their necks to look at their peers or myself when talking and students.  While some classes are more open to moving daily than others, I find more students are switching around where they sit every few days, are moving based on what we are doing in class, and voluntarily switching seats to accommodate peers.  Students this year take responsibility for their seating choice for the day and have not “claimed” a seat as students did last fall, sitting there through the spring. Sometimes, I confess, the classroom does feel disjointed, like when students are working independently and chatting with those close to them, but I remind myself that at least they’re in a community, not isolated desks of individuals.

While the set-up and general facilitation of non-traditional seating is not always easy and I’d love to make my own place in the classroom just as flexible, students unanimously responded across six classes that they prefer the arrangement and choice to rows of desks, especially for reading time.  So if it works for them, I will make it work for me!

Maggie Lopez wishes everyone a happy, productive 2020 full of excellent books!  She is currently reading “The Lost City of Z” by David Grann after thoroughly enjoying “Killers of the Flower Moon.” You can connect with her @meglopez0.

When Your Teaching Life Throws You a Curve…

Hit a home run.

Or at least make contact, get on base, and rely on your teammates and experience to get you across home plate.

This new year, the new decade, reminds me that teachers often face new challenges and situations. Think about that student who transfers into your school nine days before the semester ends or the joy and then horror that flashes through your mind when you see that new copiers have been installed.

Sometimes though, we face new adventures that even vast swaths of experience cannot prepare us to handle the way we parry and deflect most of what’s throw at us. For me, a move away from athletics pushed me toward new classes that revealed just how comfortable I had become in my almost decade working with seniors. Last year freshman English and freshman Pre-AP English classes taught me about patience and pacing. This year sophomores and AP juniors force me to flex muscles I never knew I had and push me to explore the boundaries of my workshop pedagogy.

For those of us who face the anxiety of teaching a totally new class, a new unit of study, or even a new lesson, consider this advice:

  1. Lean on the pillars of experience around you.
  2. Trust the reading and writing workshop process.
  3. Build a team.
  4. Explore your literacy.

I’ve been blessed to leap into these last two years, and the change they promised, with groups of teachers who had been there before and knew what to expect.  Their knowledge and willingness to support me allowed for less time learning new content and more time planning effective lesson delivery.  While I have many questions, they seem to always have an answer that guides me back on the pathway to success.

Lean into the workshop that supports reading and writing because it invites literacy learners to feel safe within the routines and community that literacy learners need. New learning happens much easier then the teacher and the students feel comfortable and safe with each other.

Growing your support system beyond your teaching team is important. Living on front street with your students about your inexperience can be a scary proposition, but it can also invite them into the type of relationship where they understand that you will all grow together and that they are not the only ones being asked to shoulder a growth mindset. As for the adults in the building, instructional coaches are there to help you and support you, looking for clues to the type of help you need, listening when you struggle, celebrating your successes because they own a piece of your potential. Lastly, but no less importantly, build relationships with your administration. Extend the invitation for them to be in your room and learn about the students that pass through your life on a daily basis.  Admin isn’t there solely to handle disruptions or crisis. Rather, they, like every other educator in the building, have a vested interest in the success of your students and deserve the opportunity to experience your greatness.

Never forget the value of reading and writing beside your students. When you aren’t sure how to fairly and authentically assess the writing tasks you ask your students to perform, write your own response.  When you ask them to revise their writing, invite them into your process to help you explore your ideas.  They will jump at the chance to support your writing the way you support theirs. Share your reading life too.  Your reading life will engage them just as deeply, and as they learn more about what you like to read, they will learn more about you and, perhaps, about their own compassion.

Most importantly, trust the process. Believe in yourself in the face of new experiences. You owe it to the students and to yourself.


Charles Moore recently returned from a 2025 mile road trip vacation where he learned about new people and places and loved every minute of it. He encourages everyone to try to visit the Martin Luther King Jr. Historical Park and The King Center. Bring some tissues just in case a high school band spontaneously shows up to play for Dr. King.

“It’s Beautiful” – A Simple Reminder

Happy Holidays!

I’ll keep this post short and sweet.

I hope you are finding your holiday break restful and rejuvenating, filled with warmth and time with family. I know I am enjoying spending time with both mine and my husband’s extended families. Both of our families are large and loud and full of children under the age of ten. It’s chaotic and joyful and, honestly, one of my favorite gatherings of the year – on both sides.

While sitting in church on Christmas Sunday, my three year old niece brought me a coloring page and began to use my lap as a table. The last one to grab crayons, she was stuck with a really drab brown. She enthusiastically scribbled and scrabbled and scratched her ugly brown crayon all over that coloring page with – seemingly – no rhyme or reason. Breathing heavily, she gave it her all for five frantic minutes.

Then she stopped, held up her art, and sighed. “It’s beautiful.”

My heart melted. Of course it was. She saw beauty where I only saw a mess.

It reminded me of conferencing with my students. There’s always something worth praising, something beautiful in their writing. I don’t know about you but my first instinct is to start with what we can fix, where I can teach by showing what the student can do better. When I start conferencing after the break, I want to remember my niece and ask my students: What do you LIKE about this piece? What’s beautiful?

I think that reframing will make for a good moment in our conferences.

Sarah Morris teaches AP English Language and Composition, AP Seminar, and Film as Literature in Murfreesboro, TN. She is currently reading and loving Mo Willems’s picture books. She tweets @marahsorris_cms.

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